susan smith nash
May 11, 2014
Industrialization, The Turmoil, and the Quest for "Bigness"
The first of Tarkington’s The Growth Trilogy, The Turmoil, was published in 1915, and written before the Great War had broken out. There is not much concern in the Midwestern industrial town for the goings-on in Europe, and you do not feel the threat of anarchists or Bolshevik anti-aristocratic rage, except in the sense that fortunes of the past are ephemeral, and the families that considered themselves to be the local gentry, even aristocrats, traced their success back five decades or so, not five centuries. The Turmoil has a resolutely American feel, and it immediately connects to the American reader who would instantly recognize people and places in his or her own experience, and forces that have acted upon one’s own community, family, and sense of identity and/or self.
It may first appear that Booth Tarkington’s Turmoil (1915) is either a simple homage to pluck and American values of individualism, as the ultimate heroes are more free-thinkers than simple cult followers, or, a critique of nature-despoiling aspects industrialization. However, Turmoil is not so easily classified along such dualistic lines. Instead, Turmoil explores the space between the two extremes. In fact, the novel never actually inhabits the space representing one extreme or the other, but in reality undermines its own potential as an epic encomium on of human ingenuity to result in growth, jobs, prosperity, or a cautionary parable that seeks to incite social reform.
The novel is a fairly brief and very accessible account of the son of an industrialist in a Midwestern town (ostensibly Indianapolis) who, after resisting the way that factories, industry, automobiles, and coal-fired plants have turned the once slow-paced, bucolic small city into a smoky, noisy, and dangerous metropolis, comes to find a way to live in it, and with it, yet with social and environmental conscious and consciousness. It is also the story of the mind of an industrialist, a soi-disant tycoon who rose up, in an earthy echo of Gatsby’s “divine conception of self” but with a heart and values that, in the end, value the human being over the machine. Above, however, The Turmoil expresses a modernist metaphysics, which embraces and elaborates the philosophical notions Schopenhauer and others of Being and Becoming, and the mystical heritage of American transcendentalism of earlier in the century (Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau), and of the later 19th-century psychological insights of William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience.
From an aesthetic perspective, The Turmoil is valuable because, while it appears to critique rapid industrialization, in point of fact, it’s a deeply subversive novel capable of generating joissance in the same measure as Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909), the idea of dramatic feats of engineering as expressed in the Eiffel Tower (1889), and later with dynamism in Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) and the collective pieces of art displayed at the Armory Show (1913), including notably Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912). The Turmoil also resonates with the collective artistic zeitgeist on many different levels: Tarkington’s city and factories are symphonic in the way of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) and poetics, if they are to express the perceptible ontology of a world in flux, must by necessity gravitate toward the random, as in Apollinaire’s poem, “Un Coup de Des” (1897) and visual poetry.
As mentioned earlier, Turmoil is first of the Growth Trilogy, which was launched by Turmoil, and then followed by The Magnificent Ambersons and finally concluded with The Midlander. All but The Magnificent Ambersons are out of print. It seems likely that The Magnificent Ambersons remains in print only because of Orson Wells’ celebrated film which was, in theory, butchered by the studio, but which contains much of the brooding, dark, deep-focus ambience of Citizen Kane. The Magnificent Ambersons was recently remade, which seemed to trigger a demand for a restored “director’s cut” of the original film, but not much analysis of how the film really relates to the book. The book achieves a hard-won rapprochement with technology and growth, while acknowledging a nihilistic undercurrent. The film’s main claim to subversion tends to be of sentimentality and of a studio ethos. The deeper issues addressed in the book are largely overlooked.
That said, Turmoil is self-questioning on many levels, and it subverts the prevailing narratives, not to undermine completely, but to question assumptions and causal relations.
“Bigness” is the new god, but what does “Bigness” do? It is an obvious driver of change, and consumer. It despoils, and yet “bigness” creates a structure. It is the framework of change and turmoil. Bigness forces a closer look, and an emphasis on subtle, small behaviors that flow together like streams into a river. “Bigness” could be viewed as pure thanatos drive